It was after meeting Tennessee Williams and seeing his work on The Glass Menagerie that William Inge, at that time a theatre critic and writer living in St. Louis, Missouri, wrote his first play, Farther Off from Heaven. Many of the demons and some of the comforts in his life, including his fondness for teachers, are reflected in Inge’s plays, including the Duluth Playhouse’s production of Picnic. Inge committed suicide in 1973 after he stopped teaching and retreated into solitude.
Picnic, written in 1953, premiered on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre and ran for 477 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also starred Paul Newman, but not in the role one might have pictured him playing, although Newman did go on in later runs to play the role of Hal.
The Duluth Playhouse’s production, directed by Michelle Juntunen, stars Carolyn LePine as Madge and Seth Carlson as Hal, the story’s central characters. They are flanked by a remarkable quartet for most of their time on stage with Ellie Martin (Flo), Cathy Berggren (Mrs. Potts), Jennie Ross (Milie), and Julie MacIver Venhuizen (Rosemary).
The story takes place in small-town Kansas, on Labor Day weekend. Flo Owens and her two daughters Millie and Madge are preparing for the neighborhood picnic. Their neighbor, Mrs. Potts, has hired Hal, an erstwhile college student and handyman, to do some odd jobs around her house–sans shirt (and nobody’s complaining on or off stage.) Berggren is endearing and mischievous as the slightly lascivious spinster neighbor, opening the show with appreciative laughs and giggles from the audience, keeping the action light until later in the show where she opens up and confides in Flo on how it feels to have let time pass her by in a poignant layer.
From their back porches, a sense of community is quickly established when Ellie Martin, Carolyn LePine, and Jennie Ross appear on stage. Curtis Phillips’ set is a magnificent pair of weathered back porches with a sloping lawn dialed in for attention to detail. Bringing it together is the chemistry and ease the actresses have in their characters. As the over-protective mother, Flo, Ellie Martin has been cast in the type of role in which she shines. Her careworn performance is an illustration of a life of difficulty sprinkled with bits of joy in raising–single handedly for some time, obviously–her two girls.
The play, itself, is an examination of the lives of women in the mid twentieth century, where there is a struggle between substance and beauty, and gender roles in a time where women were perceived or even desired as delicate and passive. Flo’s ambition is to marry her eldest, Madge, off to Alan (Jacob Effinger) the scion of one of the town’s wealthy families. Madge, a beauty of eighteen, is valued for her attractiveness and, apparently, not much else. LePine and Ross as the polar opposite sisters, play off each other generously in the obvious illustrations of their differences. Pensive and unassuming, LePine spends her time on stage in a serene yet sorrowful contemplation of her identity, vacillating between expectations of marrying Alan, and being drawn into the orbit of the neighborhood’s sexy newcomer, who challenges everything with which she has been raised. One of the shortcomings of the script is the opportunity to have more of the struggle play out on stage beyond kissing and implied sex. It’s not until the closing moments that LePine gets to show off any of her range as she makes a life-changing decision in a heart-tugging moment with Martin.
Seth Carlson does a fair job as the impulsive, attention-starved ne’er-do-well although a little more grit to his performance would convey something extraordinary before he transforms into being held in Madge’s thrall. He commands the stage well physically and emotionally as his character runs the gamut of them. The interplay between LePine and Carlson is just racy enough for the time period in which it was written, although there is a lack of tension leading up to their passionate night that would be a compelling component in highlighting both Madge’s emotional conflicts with Alan and her mother’s expectations as well as Hal’s softening from a life of tall tales and rootless wandering when he professes his love for Madge. Script-wise, it seems to come too fast and not furiously enough on stage. It is obvious that both actors are more than capable of bringing it to that level, but the writing just doesn’t let them get there.
Jennie Ross gives a spunky and well-done performance as the tomboy sister just itching to blossom into womanhood in her own right. It is she who gets the date with Hal, transformed on stage from overalls to a flowing summer dress for the impending picnic. Fortunately, the script gives her plenty of moments to show the audience her conflicting emotions over the attention lavished on her sister for her beauty and the invisibility of her own intelligence in a culture that devalues smart women. From her performance, one can almost imagine Millie leaving the Midwest and taking up residence in a large urban city as a first-rate feminist with substance.
A stand-out performance by Julie MacIver Venhuizen punctuates some of the themes running through the show. As the unmarried teacher renting a room from Flo, Rosemary finds herself falling short of society’s expectation for her to get married and she desperately lunges at her heart’s desire, Howard (Keith Shelbourn), even though he’s obviously not the best choice for her. In a raw and heart-wrenching scene, Rosemary pleads with Howard to call her next morning, since she has slept with him and now she must make herself an honest woman by marriage. Venhuizen’s Rosemary is judgmental, imperious, yet underneath, vulnerable and terribly frightened of where she sees her life going on her own. And that’s exactly how the performance should be. She is jealous of Madge’s beauty, resentful of Hal’s attraction to Madge and his carefree life, and mad as hell at the world in a tightly wound life of rules. Rosemary may be the most fully realized character in Inge’s story and Venhuizen does the responsibility justice on stage. Amber Goodspeed as Irma and Ashley Christman as Christine play the school teacher acquaintances that show, vividly, the superficial life from which Rosemary wants so badly to escape. Back on stage, Jacob Effinger plays the earnest and respectful Alan, coming to terms with the lukewarm affections of Madge and the betrayal of his buddy, Hal, in a well-executed performance that could also use more fleshing out in the script.
As a Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Picnic still holds relevance as a time capsule piece that explores universal and cultural themes. This mix of actors does a fantastic job keeping the action and dialogue moving right along without getting too heavy-handed with the obvious themes. While Inge’s script could use some more generous treatment for the character of Madge, it is still enough of a taste of the conflict to make the themes translate to today’s audiences. The show is well-cast and, for the money, a fabulous night of understated yet compelling dramatic theatre–something the Playhouse needs to recognize as a genre worth putting more of on their season selections. Recommended.
PICNIC. Written by William Inge. Directed by Michelle Juntunen for the Duluth Playhouse, 506 West Michigan Street. With Cathy Berggren, Seth Carlson, Ashley Christman, Jacob Effinger, Amber Goodspeed, Carolyn LePine, Ellie Martin, Julie MacIver Venhuizen, Cory Regnier, Jennie Ross, and Keith Shelbourn. The show runs Thursdays through Sundays through January30. Curtain at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.